Black people socially isolated way before Covid 19


There’s a lot of talk at the moment about the socially distancing and the body language that people are adopting since the corona virus. A friend lamented to me it was completely unnerving, and a little disturbing the lengths people will now go to keep their distance. It’s true. I’ve seen people cross the road rather than safely pass someone in the street. I’ve also witnessed in supermarkets that some people will give you a sideways glance that if you should get within a 5 metre radius then either one of you will somehow immediately drop dead. It’s a horrible feeling on both sides.

But many Black people have experienced this unnerving, at times dehumanising feeling way before Covid 19, when the risk of life and death was not real.

I can’t help but feel that if there are individuals feeling uncomfortable by the way some people exaggerate their physical distancing when there is potential danger, imagine the hurt, and that crushing effect on the individuals when this occurs and there’s nothing to be afraid of?

I recall an occurrence a few years back, when I got on an over-ground train from Liverpool St to somewhere in Tottenham. It was early evening so the trains were expected to be busy. As I entered the carriage to my right there was a young couple sitting alongside each other and two empty seats in front. ‘Yes’, I thought, ‘I’m going to get a seat’. As I began to move towards the seat, the young woman turned to her friend and said in Spanish, “Man, I hope this guy doesn’t sit with us”, “Ojalá este no se siente al lado nuestro”. My Spanish is pretty good so I knew what I heard, but before sitting down I looked behind me to see if there was someone else she was referring to. But no, it was me.

As I sat down the woman shrugged her shoulders and continued talking about her day. Inside I began to seethe; How dare a foreign national make me feel uncomfortable in my own country. I wanted to shout, ‘Who do you think you are? But I quickly calculated if I become cross and question the young woman for making me feel uncomfortable, I know that these situations can quickly descend into me being the aggressor and her the victim. But equally I strongly felt, if I do nothing then I’ll feel dreadful.

Thankfully on that day a higher power was at hand that miraculously came to my aid. My phone rang. As quick as flash I put it to my ear and responded in Spanish, “ Hola Gary, que tal estas? “Hey Gary, what’s happening”.

The couple, in particularly the young woman instantly froze. Her eyes shifted to her friend, and then to no-man’s land as the enormity began to sink it. My friend Gary, who doesn’t speak Spanish was asking, “Why you speaking in Spanish”, and my response was more Spanish; “ Pues si hombre, a mi no me gusta, pero la vida es asi”. The very next stop the couple hastily got up and walked off. I don’t know if it was their stop but I sensed they felt as uncomfortable as I did when I got on the train.

I wish I could say that incident of being socially isolated was a one off, but it isn’t. Many Black people including myself will tell you that on long distance train journeys if we’re already sitting down the empty seats next to us will be the very last to be occupied.

Therefore, unlike some who’ll say, ‘I can‘t wait until we go back to normal after this social isolation’. I’d say, I hope we don’t go back to normal and that this experience has taught us just how dehumanising it is to feel you are less than in these social spaces when you are clearly not.

Simon Woolley